Debt collectors respond: What it's like for us

debt collectorsNot long ago, we shared the experiences of several Americans who had climbed their way out of deep debts. Their tales touched a nerve with readers who shared their own harrowing stories of their experiences with debt collectors. Some of these agents treated their debtors professionally; others, less so. Readers described dodging collection calls and hanging up on agents.

A few brave professionals also responded, complaining of the unfair mis-characterization of their jobs, and of them. What's it like to be on the other end of that phone, or on the other side of that doorway? Here's the consensus: Being a debt collector is a tough way to make a living.

"It was the worst, nastiest job I ever had. Every day, I would go to work stressed out," says Lisa Crowley, who handled receivables for a heavy-equipment company in Michigan in the late 1980s. Half of her job involved calling clients who hadn't settled their bills, from mom-and-pop businesses to the city of Detroit. Crowley stuck it out for a year before transferring to another department.

About 53% of the members of ACA International, the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, stay in a collections job for three to five years, and more than two thirds of its members are women.

Andre Vaughn lasted longer than most. For more than five years in the 1980s, Vaughn used the alias Phillip Martin as a collections agent for a company specializing in delinquent medical bills. Vaughn called people who had outstanding medical bills and try to get payments: not a job for the faint of heart. "We used to take bets to see who would last. Some new people would start at 8 a.m., leave for lunch at noon, and never come back."

For those who did stay, it was a lucrative business, Vaughn says. Unlike some collectors, his firm didn't buy distressed debt but worked on commission with hospitals and other medical facilities. "Whatever the office collected, they would return 40% to the business and keep 60%," he says. A 25% commission for collection agents sometimes quadrupled Vaughn's monthly salary.

But the strain of the job eventually took its toll: Vaughn eventually left the job -- and the industry -- to work in a law office. The anything-goes mentality for getting that money was tough, he says, and sometimes agents would bend the rules. An agent who threatened to sue someone could be fired -- only the lawyers could make such claims -- but other sneaky tactics slipped through the cracks. "We'd tell them to take out a second mortgage, take out a life insurance policy, whatever it took," Vaughn says.

Although the agents knew that, at the time, the debtor could only be held legally responsible for the principal they owed and not the interest, Vaughn and his co-workers tried to get everything they could. "Getting the interest as well was pure gravy. That's how they referred to it." Also, he says, "If they were on welfare or that kind of thing, you couldn't technically call them. But we did anyway."

Despite the pressure to collect as much as possible from every debtor, Vaughn says he sometimes tried to help the most unfortunate debtors. "The other thing I did that would've gotten me fired immediately is, if I looked [at their file] and saw they had cancer or AIDS I would just cancel the debt and write it off as uncollectable." For terminal patients with no hope of recovery, Vaughn says he knew trying to collect would be a lost cause anyway, so he wrote off the debt -- and saved them the demanding phone calls in their final months.

Vaughn says he got further with most people by being professional and businesslike: explaining to debtors that they had to take care of the debt, but that he would help them find a way to pay it off within their means. "I tried to talk to the person as a person and let them know I understood their situation, but somehow we had to figure out how they're going to take care of this," he says. It was this willingness to position himself as a collaborator rather than an adversary, and an unwillingness to talk down to people who were behind on their bills, that went a lot further than heavy-handed tactics, he says.

The most common misconception about debt collection is that collectors don't want to work with consumers, says Karolyn Rubin, president of ACA International. Rubin, who has co-owned her family's Chicago debt-collection firm for 25 years, says consumers are often unwilling to explain their financial pain, whether out of embarrassment or a belief that their fortunes will suddenly improve.

"I truly believe every consumer wants to resolve every outstanding situation," she says, but to do so "is a matter of establishing firm communication and all parties trusting each other." People facing collections, she says, should explain if they've lost work or fallen ill, Rubin says: Work with the professional collector, and be forthcoming about the reason for nonpayment."

This economy makes creditors more willing to cut deals with debtors. "I've seen more creditors willing to forgive a portion of the debt," Rubin says. She advises anyone struggling with debt to talk with agents who call them. "Every collector I've come across has acted in the utmost professional and ethical manner," Rubin says. "We're bound by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to treat all consumers well. It's not our objective to harass, belittle, or demean them."

Readers, what do you think? We've heard some hair-raising stories of rude collection agents -- were these just a few bad apples? Tell us about your conversations with collectors, good and bad.
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